Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Non Orthodox Serious Jews

One of the brightest and most thoughtful people I have ever met (well, we haven’t actually met except in cyberspace) is Jonathan Baker. He has written a thoughtful piece on his blog about a trend he perceives of a migration of Heterodox Jews to Modern Orthodoxy.

I don’t know that there have been any studies about this demographic migration - but if true it is not surprising. In my view he correctly reasons that modern Orthodoxy is a natural home for someone raised in one of the heterodox movements.

Jonathan calls them serious Jews. These are people who seek the truth of Judaism but do not necessarily stem from Orthodox backgrounds. The examples he gives are of people of conviction and in some cases descendants of founders of those movements:

- An old childhood friend, whose father was a Reform ordinee with a Conservative synagogue, found himself in Modern Orthodoxy, at LSS and now in Westchester.- A daughter of the former head of JTSA, davened with us regularly at the Orthodox synagogue in Park Slope.

- A great-grandson of R' Mordechai Kaplan went to Ramaz and davened at LSS, and is still modern Orthodox in his new home (where he has been since college).

- And in Sunday's NY Times, the daughter of R' Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism for the past several years, married another Jewish fellow, with an Orthodox rabbi, in West Orange NJ, a Modern Orthodox stronghold. They're solidly in the world - Yale, Harvard and Princeton, he a lawyer, she a professor to be.

This trend – if it truly exists - demonstrates a major problem that heterodox movements have. They are hemorrhaging. They cannot seem to hold on to the most committed Jews among them- the serious Jews.

Judaism is not only an exercise in intellectual thought – although rational thought is a major part of it. It is a living breathing way of life. It is as much spiritual as it is rational. I think that is a major component that is lacking in other movements. In order to sustain spirituality it requires a commitment to Mitzvos. It is difficult if not impossible to be spiritual when there is no tangible way to express it in one’s life. Mitzvos add that component. Rituals observance – almost by definition are spiritual.

We are required to love God - heart and soul - and do His bidding as mandated in the Torah. There are two categories of Mitzvos: ethical Mitzvos and ritual Mitzvos. Ethical Mitzvos are understandable by themselves. They are humanistic in nature. The dictum “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” sums that up.

That’s why the emphasis on ethics is such a big part of Heterodox movements. They are easy to sell to the rational mind. People understand ethics. But rituals are another matter. They are not understandable in any rational way. But they are a requirement for a spiritual connection with God. That, however, is a hard sell in a world that relies so heavily on testable realities for confirmation of belief.

Serious Jews are people that are both rational and spiritual beings. The spirituality they seek is hard to find in their communities. They therefore seek it where it is found in abundance – Orthodox Judaism - expressed via ritual Mitzvah observance. But at the same time spirituality is not the only world for them. They have been educated and trained in rational thought as well and have accepted the many truths demonstrated by science. The short version of this is that they seek a world of Torah that doesn’t reject Mada. Modern Orthodox is that world.

If one looks at the world of heterodoxy one will see little ritual observance by the masses and therefore a lack of spirituality.

There is much talk lately about a return to ritual Mitzvah observance in the Reform movement. They now realize – probably too late – that ritual observance is a requirement for survival. And although the Reform movement maintains Halacha (the performance of Mitzvos) is not binding they realize that they will never survive without it.

Conservative Judaism does realize the value of Mitzvah observance and consider it binding. But they are losing their share of serious Jews too. It is the hottest topic of discussion in the upper echelons of Conservative Judaism. The current thinking is that they lack a community. They look to Orthodoxy - see growth - and have concluded that the reasons for Orthodoxy’s success is the religious neighborhood. The requirement to walk to Shul has forced Orthodox Jewry to live in close proximity to Shuls and therefore to each other.

The Conservative movement has permitted driving to Shul on Shabbos. That has eliminated the need to live in cohesive neighborhoods. A Conservative Jew can live anywhere they want. Suburban sprawl has led to no neighborhood Jewish communities for Conservative Jews.

They now realize that permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. Had they not done that their members would have been forced – the same way Orthodox Jew are – to live in close proximity to the Shul and to each other. This is what they feel is missing.

Perhaps they are right. But that is not all that is missing. It is a lack of commitment by the masses to ritual Mitzvos. They receive any serious reinforcement for that. And they have not been seriously educating their children about it either until the relatively recent advent of the Solomon Schechter School system. So in reality the lifestyles of a Conservative and Reform Jews are virtually identical.

A serious Jew who was raised to value the study of Mada but looks for spirituality will find it hard to find in their respective communities. The natural home for that is modern Orthodoxy.

Reconstructionist Jews ironically do place a strong emphasis on ritual observance. I’m not sure if they consider it mandatory or optional. But I doubt that Mitzvah observance is wide spread in this movement either. Nor do I think their numbers are large enough for a sustainable future. In any case their greater flaw is in the area of theology. I do not see this as a realistic option for serious Jews.

These are some of my thoughts. I’m sure there is a lot that can be added to to explain this trend. But whatever the reason I for one am quite happy about these new members of the Orthodox world. They are bright, educated and enthusiastic about Judaism. They have much to contribute. I can only say Ken Yirbu.